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Secret Window
Reviewed by Jason Myers and Andrew Kozma, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   David Koepp (writer/director)
Genre:   Horror/Thriller
Released:   March 12, 2004
Review Date:   March 17, 2004
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)
Andrew Kozma: I'll watch anything Johnny Depp is in. First, I love his acting -- it's a joy simply to see him enact a character on the screen. Which ties into my second point: he usually chooses "characters" to play and interesting movies in which to play them. So the expectation is always that Depp's character will be strange, and the script will be slightly askew. So it's good to know that Secret Window, based off the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden from Stephen King's Four Past Midnight, is both written and directed by the same person, and therefore more likely to be a unique and strange vision rather than the safe and tepid retellings Hollywood normally provides.

And Secret Window is not your normal horror movie. Oh, of course it shares many qualities with that manufactured brand, but the overall arc, the work as a whole, resembles more what you'd find nested in a horror magazine. The movies it shares closest ties with I can't tell you as they'd signal the turn that the plot hinges on (though we'll have to talk about that later, if only because on that point also hinges the satisfaction of the movie experience as well).

Jason Myers: I'd like to point out, for the benefit of the "Oh, this is just like [fill in the name of movie here]" crowd, that King's novella was published in 1990, so look before that for cinematic or literary antecedents. The two movies that come to my mind are a Katie Holmes movie and a certain 1996 novel turned box office failure turned cult DVD heavy-weight, and neither predates King's story.

Andrew: The one I'm thinking of came out in the late eighties. Not that I'm suggesting King stole my movie. Although, like that other movie I'm thinking of, Secret Window is a character study rather than an action fest. The journey Depp's character takes is an allegory for divorce, for, more generally, learning to deal with the end of a relationship.

Secret Window resonates with the point of view of the main character, author Mort Rainey (Depp), almost as though the environment is tainted by his loneliness. His house, a wooden, summer-cabin palace on a lake, is full of space. The area surrounding the house is a used land, now empty of people. He lives close to an abandoned quarry, now filled with water, nature reclaiming itself by destroying what was built upon (or in) it.

This environmental reflection of his inner turmoil probably explains why the movie takes its most obvious detour from the thriller/horror genre: the movie begins, essentially, with "the problem," i.e. creepy guy John Shooter. And what I mean by that is, well, since the interest of the audience, and the movement of the plot, all relate to Mort's direct experience, the movie needs to jumpstart his freaked-outedness in order to get the audience involved.

John Shooter: Yewww stole mah sto-ry.

Andrew: Man, that guy is creepy. Who let him in here?

Jason: Quiet. He'll hear you.

Okay, I think he's gone now.

Where were we? Shooter is sure as shootin' that Mort plagiarized something Shooter wrote . . .

Andrew: . . . and he wants redress.

Jason: John Shooter has the conviction of a backwoods preacher, the venom of a copperhead, and the single-minded purposefulness of a witch-finder general. He carries those things with him like a grudge. John Turturro, who plays Shooter, puts menace into each word like razor-wire baked into a batch of shortenin' bread. And the way he flawlessly sells the line "I'll burn everything in your life like a cane field in a high wind", you know that any movie critics stupid enough to mistake John Shooter for just another third-generation Deliverance cast-off will soon find the barrel of a sawed-off scraping against their teeth.

Andrew: Most horror movies begin with a teaser, of course, but rarely does the teaser (random teenager getting killed) directly involve the main character. In Secret Window we follow Mort's haunting persecution by Shooter from the opening silhouette of the man in a funny hat behind the door, up to the final shot, a linearity not commonplace today, but well-used here -- it allows us to be completely in Mort's shoes throughout the film, to experience normalcy interrupted, turned stranger and stranger, just as he does.

Which is why, at The Plot Point Which May Not Be Named, the movie falls apart. All tension evaporates and, lo, there's at least fifteen minutes left to go, a resolution that is not so much a resolution as a playing out of events that are already foregone conclusions. I don't know if it would have been possible to come up with solution to the plot that would have not been, after the fact, like a Christmas present unwrapped carefully before Christmas morning and meticulously rewrapped so no one knows but on the big day you still have to act surprised even though you know it's just a new winter parka in a large misleading box so instead of crying because you didn't get your Castle Grayskull playset you have to laugh and then keep the pain inside because you don't want to ruin Christmas for everyone else—

The Grinch: Iah stole yahr Christ-mas.

Andrew: Uh . . . What I meant was that there must have been a way that, at least, the movie could have ended with the horror intact, the horror of the incident we know will happen but aren't able to watch: the images in our minds are often more powerful than what is shown openly.

However, the ending [SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] is another major divergence from the mass-produced horror of recent years in that it is amoral. It harkens back to that older time of yore when films disturbed not so much by the graphic consequences of actions on the screen but because of how the screen reflected real life, how endings could happen that would not reaffirm the preferred ideal of the way the world should be, and instead portrayed the world as is.

Removing the last fifteen minutes would cut off that disturbing argument but, alas, would also make Secret Window a more effective movie.

Jason: Wow. My experience of the movie was so different. Partially, that's because, twenty minutes into the movie, I realized that I had actually read King's Secret Garden, Secret Window. It was a peculiar kind of let-down because I went into the movie expecting not to know what was going on, and then it turns out that I already know the ending, which is, as Mort points out, the most important part of the story.

On the other hand, when I first read it, Secret Garden, Secret Window absolutely blew my brains out (though, little by little, my memory of it fell away. In time, the title of the story became a mystery even to me). The primary kick of the story came from The Plot Point Which May Not Be Named. In the theater, I wished I could momentarily erase my memory, so I could watch the story unfold without knowing what was inside. As it was, my previous encounter with Secret Window allowed me to see the seeds that writer/director David Koepp was planting, seeds that most everyone else won't see the first time around. I have to say I was impressed with the journey, even though I already knew the final destination.

For me, the movie didn't fall apart at the end. I thought it was appropriate, scary, and not an obvious foregone conclusion. (And I'm pretty sure it's not a case of the reader filling in details that the director left out, because the only thing I can remember from the novella is three or four plot points, and the shivery feeling it left me with). For me, the ending of the movie was spartan. Little fuss is made over it. Koepp disposes of the ending like a killer would a body: swiftly, grimly, and dispassionately.

Andrew:There are a few strange and wonderful aspects that make the movie worth watching . . . maybe not in the theatre, but in the privacy of your own home. One is Depp's Mort, which shares some of the darkness of his character in The Ninth Gate and a bit of the wackiness of his role in Pirates of the Caribbean. Regardless of the quality of the movie, Depp always inhabits his characters fully, makes them real so that you can imagine what they'd do outside the movie, say, for example, how they'd order a cup of coffee at Starbucks and what they'd complain about while waiting for the drink.

Jason: Depp absolutely refuses to act like someone who's trapped in a horror movie. On the whole, it's a refreshing choice, although there were a few times that I felt the director should have reigned him in a little.

Andrew: Another reason to watch is that the soundtrack is by Philip Glass, minimalist extraordinaire. His penchant for repetition and overlapping themes never overpowers the movie's action but always supports it, needling in extra emotion at all the right moments.

Jason: Something that hasn't been touched on yet is how sharp and witty the script is. Of course, Depp brings it to life, but Depp certainly didn't improvise all of those lines. The movie doesn't just scare you, it makes you laugh, and (usually) without detriment to the overall tone of the story.

Andrew: There are a host of side-characters generally well-acted, nice visuals, creepy music, a ticking clock, but none of these matter if the central character-based dilemma fizzles.

There is a sequence near the end that is almost worth the price of admission to see how Depp handles it. The beginning to the sequence is genuinely startling, intriguing, and creepy, but, unfortunately, it is this sequence that ties things up neatly, ribbon and all.

[HERE ENDETH THE SPOILER-FREE SECTION OF THIS REVIEW. SKIP TO THE RATINGS.]

And it is this neatness which is poor, because the movie relies on one character -- Mort Rainey -- and when his problems are resolved the story ends, whether or not the plot continues.

Jason: Seen from that perspective, the last five or ten minutes (I'd be willing to bet it isn't as long as fifteen) is a denouement. Because Secret Window is basically a 90-minute episode of The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. In a half-hour show, the zinger and its aftermath would take up maybe two minutes, but this is a movie, and we'd feel cheated if we were cut off too quickly. Here the zinger is a drawn-out scene of revelation, confrontation, and explanation. The aftermath is only three scenes. Three uncommonly short scenes. The first of those three scenes (let's call that scene "Here's Johnny!") could have been easily drawn out and infused with its own series of twists and turns (and if this were a normal horror thriller, it would have been). It's curt and matter-of-fact because Koepp knows quite well that it's all over but the crying. Secret Window is too simple to register as more than a minor entry in the horror genre. But it is a good yarn well-spun.

Andrew: Seen from that perspective, I'd have to agree with you. I wanted this movie to be more than an expanded episode, and saw glimmers of that chance throughout. Really, I'm disappointed because the movie wasn't what I wanted it to be, it was "too simple." Though, for what it is, you're right. Well designed, well executed, but just a little short on ambition.

Andrew's Rating: 5 out of 10, or 7 out of 10 if you cut the last five, ten, or fifteen minutes.

Jason's Rating: 7 out of 10, ending and all

Sneezy the Squid: Yewww stole mah ree-view.

Andrew: What do you mean? Who are you?

Sneezy the Squid: Yewww stole mah ree-view. Yewww know yewww dihd.

Jason: I'm the movie review editor here, so your beef's with me if anyone.

The "Where's the Beef?" Lady: Yeww stole mah beef!

John Shooter: Mah stars. RevSF'll let anyone in their ree-views these days.

Tom Cullen: M-O-O-N, that spells "ree-view".

Harrison Bergeron: They won't let me in.

Jason: That's because you died.

Andrew: Jason, This is getting out of hand.

Jason: I blame you.

Andrew: Me?

Sneezy the Squid: I wahnt yewww to fix mah ending.

Andrew: That's our ending! We wrote it moments before you got here. We didn't steal your ree-view!

Jason: Shut up, Andrew.

Sneezy the Squid: Ke-ehp hihm tethered, unless yeww wahnt yer lives to be consumed like two sticks of cotton candy in a storm of 3rd graders.

Andrew: Why you--

Jason: Fine, we'll give you what you want. Will you then leave us alone?

Sneezy the Squid: Just fix mah ending. Then we'll see.

Sneezy the Squid's Rating: 8 out of 10, cuz it let him prak-tice his O Brother hick southern ak-cent.

John Shooter's Rating: 9.5 out of 10, because the theatre only served popped corn.
Jason Myers is RevSF’s Film/DVD Editor. Andrew Kozma is a poet and a smart-ass. John Shooter is not just some nut. The Grinch is a mean one. The “Where’s the Beef” Lady is dead. Harrison Bergeron is either dead or a nom-de-plume. Or both. Tom Cullen is spelled M-O-O-N. Sneezy is a squid. Maybe.

 
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